On April 12, Temple Grandin, Ph.D., brought a message about “Developing Individuals Who Have Different Kinds of Minds,” to NIEHS.
The professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University delivered an enlightening 2018 NIEHS Spirit Lecture to a packed auditorium. More than 600 individuals watched her talk, about 300 attending in person and 300 via free public webcast. A video of her presentation is available on the NIEHS YouTube page. A video of her presentation is available on the NIEHS YouTube page.
Grandin has published numerous scientific articles and books on animal behavior. Her designs for humane handling of livestock are widely used today. She is also a well-known author and speaker about autism, which she discusses with authority as a person with autism.
Development of different minds starts early
Grandin said she sees the world differently than typical adults. “Everything I think about is a picture,” she said. For visual thinkers such as herself, Grandin emphasized the importance of schools offering classes that foster creativity and teach skilled trades, such as art, sewing, woodworking, and auto shop.
Creative geniuses like Thomas Edison, Dame Jane Goodall, Ph.D., and Albert Einstein, Ph.D., would likely have been labeled as autistic today, according to Grandin. Many of them had unconventional educations, and she questioned whether they would have been as successful in today’s educational system.
“Too many kids are getting labeled, and I’m worried they are getting screened out,” she cautioned.
For those who think differently, Grandin believes that early exposure to work experiences is important to success in life. “I was a lousy student in high school, and I wasn’t fond of studying until studying became the path to my goal of becoming a scientist,” she said.
Science needs different thinkers
In Grandin’s own research, visual thinking allows her to better understand animal behavior. For example, she noticed details, such as dangling chains or shadows, that could spook animals.
“Animal minds are specific because they are sensory based and not word based,” she said, explaining how these observations became part of her designs for livestock handling equipment and an animal welfare scoring system.
“Observation is a very important part of science,” she reminded the audience. Visual thinkers see details others may overlook. Individuals with autism may be either visual, pattern, verbal, or auditory thinkers or a combination of those types. Grandin emphasized that scientific advancements require different minds working together.
Lecture turns personal
Grandin’s message held personal meaning for many members of the audience, which included teachers, relatives, and parents of individuals with autism, as well as some who identified themselves as having autism.
To those seeking additional advice, Grandin returned often to the importance of exposing kids to activities of shared interest and to work experiences. “We’ve got to get these kids out doing something,” she said, suggesting walking neighbors’ dogs on a set schedule, volunteering at church, and other tasks appropriate to age and ability levels.
Planning for this year’s Spirit Lecture was led by Eli Ney and Kristin Ryan, Ph.D., both from the National Toxicology Program. Ney and Ryan, who co-chaired the Spirit Lecture Committee, said they hoped that Grandin’s lecture inspired people to think differently about autism.
“I hope that the audience realizes that it does take different types of minds to make organizations work, and that, when we label individuals, we are selling them short,” said Ney. “As Temple once said, ‘I am different, not less’.”
(Katie Glenn, Ph.D., is an Intramural Research Training Award Fellow in the NIEHS Mechanisms of Mutation Group.)